John Henry Newman saw a need to integrate religion into intellectual life

An image of Blessed John Henry Newman points to Christ on the mural painted by William Kurelek in the St. Thomas More College Chapel, opposite a painting of St. Thomas More in a similar pose. (Photo by Kiply Lukan Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News.)

Editor’s Note: Blessed John Henry Newman will be canonized a Saint on Sunday, Oct. 13. This is a talk about Cardinal Newman given at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon by historian and archivist Margaret Sanche in 2001, to mark the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the first Newman organization at the University of Saskatchewan.

By Margaret Sanche, Archivist, Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon

“A university is the place to which a thousand schools make contributions; in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure to find its equal in some antagonistic activity, and its judge in the tribunal of truth.  It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge.” – From The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman.

It is always risky to use a brief quotation to exemplify the thought of any person, and particularly so in the case of someone like John Henry Newman, whose discourse developed and changed over many years and whose writings were prolific, varied in genre and vast in scope.  He wrote much about university education, the unity and wholeness of all knowledge, the need to integrate religion into academic life and the importance of educating lay people to live faith-filled lives in an increasingly faith-less world.

This weekend the college community will be celebrating the 75th anniversary of the first Newman organization at this university and it seemed to be a good idea to use this occasion to focus briefly on this extraordinary man and to reflect on why he was chosen by Catholic university students to be their patron.

Around the globe, people are preparing to celebrate the canonization of Cardinal John Henry Newman on Sunday, Oct. 13, with events in England and in Rome. Find more about Newman’s life, teachings, and his canonization as a Saint at: NEWMAN CANONIZATION

Joint Statement by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anglican Church of Canada to mark the canonization of St. John Henry Newman: Joint statement -English  / Joint statement – French

John Henry Newman was born into an Anglican family on Feb. 21, 1801 in Chelsea, England, not far from where St. Thomas More was born over three hundred years earlier.  From an early age John had a passion for God and spiritual matters, and experienced his “first conversion” at the age of 15.  Throughout his life, he felt a strong sense of being part of God’s larger and unknowable plan and this gave him strength during many periods of trial and difficulty.

One of his well-loved meditations begins with this idea:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission–I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. . . .”

Newman was ordained an Anglican minister in 1825 on completion of his studies at Oxford and, in 1828, at the age of 27, he returned to Oxford as vicar of St. Mary the Virgin Church and tutor at Oriel College.

This was the home base from which he would become an outstanding religious thinker and essayist, and probably the most influential theologian of Victorian England.  During these Oxford years, Newman played a key role in the spiritual renewal within the Anglican Church known as the “Oxford Movement.”

He and his colleagues began in 1833 to disseminate their ideas and discoveries on the origins of the Church of Christ in pamphlet form, called “Tracts for the Times.”  The purpose of the tracts was to bolster the position of the Anglican Church, but Newman’s studies of the Fathers of the Church led him to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church was the “One Fold of Christ.”

He was received into the Catholic Church on Oct. 9, 1845 at the age of 44, while completing “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” one of his most important works.  In May, 1847 he was ordained to the priesthood and later became a member of the Oratorian Foundation of St. Philip Neri.

In the years following his conversion, Newman continued to write on matters concerning the Church — this time focusing on the Catholic Church, but bringing the many gifts of his Anglican experience to his reflections.

In his considerations of the nature of the Church as the mystical body of Christ, he turned more and more to the need for an educated laity.  Catholic educator Paul Chavasse writes:  “In Newman, wherever we look, we see a concern to create of the laity an active force that would be at work both in the church and in the world at large.  For this task the laity needed to be properly educated and equipped, and Newman saw this work of education as one to which he was particularly called.”

Many of Newman’s views caused controversy; time and again he was drawn into debates about his ideas and at one point had to defend himself on a charge of heresy.  It was not until the final decade or so of his life that much of what he had striven for and struggled with came to fruition and that many of his ideas were accepted as valuable.

Newman was named a cardinal of the church in 1878 at the age of 77. He died August 11, 1890 at the age of 89. Pope John Paul II declared him ‘Venerable’ in 1991 and in 2001, the Church celebrates the centenary of his birth. His motto “Heart speaks to Heart” was adopted by the many Catholic student groups formed in his name.

Newman’s ideas about education were mirrored in the federated college model of Catholic higher education developed by the Basilian Fathers here in Canada – a model on which St. Thomas More College was founded in 1936.

In Newman’s ideas on faith, education, and the role of the laity, the Basilians found a kindred spirit — and, as noted by Basilian Richard Schiefen in a talk given at this college in 1991, over the years the Basilians have found affirmation for their own philosophy of Catholic education in the writings of Newman.

Although much of Newman’s writing, when taken out of its historical context of time, place and politics, might seem to be irrelevant to present day experience, his fundamental ideas are still very much worthy of study and reflection today.  Indeed, Newman was called the “unseen guide” of the Second Vatican Council, as his thought played a significant part in much of the work of the council, and his ideas on education and faith and reason have been present in recent papal encyclicals.

John Henry Newman, priest, thinker, writer, ever-learning and seeking to understand, continues to be a challenging and thought-provoking patron for Catholic university students.

Newman had insisted that a higher education without God was an incomplete education. It was for this reason that he worked for the establishment of houses or centers for Catholic students on university campuses in Ireland and England.  The first Newman Club was established at the University of Pennsylvania in 1892.  The Newman Club idea spread to other universities in the United States and Canada where Catholic students were beginning to attend secular universities in increasingly large numbers.

Newman chaplaincy and the teaching of Scholastic Philosophy at the University of Saskatchewan began with the coming of Fr. Basil Markle from Toronto in 1926 at the invitation the Newman Society, a group formed by Saskatoon Catholics to bring a Catholic presence to the provincial university.  The first Newman Hall – the original white house – was built in 1927 and the first meeting of the Newman Club was held in the fall of 1928.  Over the years, thousands of students from all the colleges of the university have participated in this Catholic student organization and have been served by the chaplains and campus ministry team associated with it.

Today, the focus of Newman Centre is still closely related to the ideals and the spirit of John Henry Newman.  Newman Centre and its campus ministry team continue to sponsor a program with intellectual, religious and social dimensions, as well as encouraging community service involvement by students.

Cardinal Newman had envisioned a special place for Catholic students, where “the intellect may safely range and speculate” and where “the collision of mind with mind and knowledge with knowledge” could occur from a faith perspective in the larger, secular university setting.   Newman Centre and St. Thomas More College have worked together over the years to provide such a place at the University of Saskatchewan.